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Education in the Netherlands

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The different levels of education in the Netherlands

Education in the Netherlands is characterized by division: education is oriented toward the needs and background of the pupil. Education is divided over schools for different age groups, some of which are divided in streams for different educational levels. Schools are furthermore divided in public, special (religious), and private schools. The Dutch grading scale

General overview

Educational policy is coordinated by the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, together with municipal governments.

Compulsory education (leerplicht) in the Netherlands starts at the age of five, although in practice, most schools accept children from the age of four. From the age of sixteen there is a partial compulsory education (partiële leerplicht), meaning a pupil must attend some form of education for at least two days a week. Compulsory education ends for pupils age twenty-three and up, or when they get a degree.

There are public, special (religious), and private schools. The first two are government-financed and officially free of charge, though schools may ask for a parental contribution (ouderbijdrage). Public schools are controlled by local governments. Special schools are controlled by a school board, and are typically based on a particular religion. As a result, there are Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim elementary schools, high schools, and universities. A special school can reject applications of pupils whose parents or caretakers disagree with the school’s educational philosophy. This is an uncommon occurrence. In practice, there is little difference between special schools and public schools, except in traditionally religious areas like Zeeland and the Veluwe (around Apeldoorn). Private schools and public schools both receive equal financial support from the government if certain criteria are met. All school types (public, special and private) are under the jurisdiction of a government body called Inspectie van het Onderwijs (Inspection of Education, also known as Onderwijsinspectie) that can demand a school to change its educational policy and quality at the risk of closure.

In elementary and high schools, pupils are assessed annually by a team of teachers who determine whether he or she has advanced enough to move on to the next grade. Since forcing a pupil to retake the year (blijven zitten; literally, "stay seated") has a profound impact on the pupil’s life in terms of social contacts and remaining in the educational system longer, this decision is not taken lightly and mechanisms are in place to avert retaking years, such as remedial teaching and other forms of guidance. As a result, retaking a year is an uncommon occurrence, although it happens more often in elementary schools than in high schools because there are fewer negative consequences at a younger age. Gifted children are sometimes granted the opportunity to skip an entire year, yet this happens rarely and if it does, it usually happens in elementary schools.


 Elementary School

Between the ages of four to twelve, children attend elementary school (basisschool; literally, "basic school"). This school has eight grades, called groep 1 (group 1) through groep 8. School attendance is compulsory from group 2 (at age five), but almost all children commence school at age four (in group 1). Groups 1 and 2 used to a separate institution akin to kindergarten (kleuterschool; literally, "toddler’s school"), until it was merged with elementary schools in 1989. From group 3 on, children will learn how to read, write and do mathematics. Most schools teach English in groups 7 and 8, although some start as early as group 4. In group 8 the vast majority of schools administer an aptitude test called the Cito Eindtoets Basisonderwijs (literally, "Cito final test primary education", often abbreviated to Citotoets (Cito test), developed by the Centraal instituut voor toetsontwikkeling (Central Institute for test development)), which is designed recommend the type of secondary education best suited for a pupil. In recent years this test has gained authority, but the recommendation of the group 8 teacher along with the opinion of the pupil and its parents remain a crucial factor in choosing the right form of secondary education. The Cito test is not mandatory; some schools instead administer the Nederlandse Intelligentietest voor Onderwijsniveau ("Dutch intelligence test for educational level", usually abbreviated to NIO-toets) or the Schooleindonderzoek ("School final test").

A considerable number of elementary schools are based on a particular educational philosophy, for instance the Montessori Method, Pestalozzi Plan, Dalton Plan or Jena Plan. Most of these are public schools, but some special schools also base themselves on one of these educational philosophies.

High School

After attending elementary education, Dutch children (by that time usually 12 years old) go directly to high school (voortgezet onderwijs; literally, "continued education"). Informed by the advice of the elementary school and the results of the Cito test, a choice is made for either vmbo, havo or vwo by the pupil and its parents. When it is not clear which type of secondary education best suits a pupil, or if the parents insist their child can handle a higher level of education than what was recommended to them, there is an orientation year for both vmbo/havo and havo/vwo to determine this. At the end of the year, the pupil will continue in the normal curriculum of either level. For havo/vwo, there is an additional second orientation year when inconclusive. A high school can offer one or more levels of education, at one or multiple locations. A focus on (financial) efficiency has led to more centralization, with large schools that offer education on all or most educational levels.

Since the Dutch educational system does not have middle schools or junior high schools, the first year of all levels in Dutch high schools is referred to as the brugklas (literally, bridge class), as it connects the elementary school system to the secondary education system. During this year, pupils will gradually learn to cope with the differences between school systems, such as dealing with an increased personal responsibility.

It is possible for pupils who have attained the vmbo diploma to attend the final two years of havo level education and sit the havo exam, and for pupils with a havo diploma to attend the final two years of vwo level education and sit the vwo exam. The underlying rationale is that this grants pupils access to a more advanced level of higher education. This system acts as a safety net to diminish the negative effects of a child’s immaturity or lack of self-knowledge. For example, when a bright pupil was sent to vmbo because it was unmotivated but later discovered its potential or has acquired the desire to achieve better, the pupil can still attain a higher level by moving on to havo. Most schools do require a particular grade average to ensure the pupil is capable of handling the increased study load and higher difficulty level.

Aside from moving up, there is also a system in place where pupils can be demoted to a lower level of education. When for example a pupil has entered secondary education at a level it cannot cope with, or when it lacks the interest to spend effort on its education resulting in poor grades, it can be sent from vwo to havo, from havo to vmbo, and from any level of vmbo to a lower level of vmbo.


The vmbo (voorbereidend middelbaar beroepsonderwijs; literally, "preparatory middle-level applied education") education lasts four years, from the age of twelve to sixteen. It combines vocational training with theoretical education in languages, mathematics, history, arts and sciences. Sixty percent of students nationally are enrolled in vmbo. Students can choose between four different levels of vmbo that differ in the ratio of practical vocational training and theoretical education. Not all levels are necessarily taught in the same high school.

  • Theoretische leerweg (vmbo-tl; literally, "theoretical learning path") has the largest share of theoretical education. It prepares for middle management and the mbo level of tertiary education, and allows students to resume vocational training at havo level.
  • Gemengde leerweg (vmbo-gl; literally, "mixed learning path") is in between vmbo-tl and vmbo-kl.
  • Kaderberoepsgerichte Leerweg (vmbo-kl; literally; "middle management-oriented learning path") is composed of an equal amount of theoretical education and vocational training. It prepares for middle management and vocational training at the mbo level of tertiary education.
  • Basisberoepsgerichte Leerweg (vmbo-bb; literally; "basic profession-oriented learning path") emphasizes vocational training and prepares for vocational training at the mbo level of tertiary education.
  • Praktijkonderwijs (literally, "practical education") mainly consists of vocational training. It is tailored to pupils who would otherwise not be able to obtain a vmbo-diploma. This form of on-the-job training is aimed at allowing pupils to enter the job market directly.

At all of these levels, Leerwegondersteunend onderwijs (literally, "learning path supporting education") is offered, which is intended for pupils with educational or behavioural problems. These pupils are taught in small classes by specialized teachers.

Selective Secondary Education

Secondary education, which begins at the age of 12 and as of 2008 is compulsory until the age of 18, is offered at several levels. The two programmes of general education that lead to higher education are havo (five years) and vwo (six years). Pupils are enrolled according to their ability, and although vwo is more rigorous, both havo and vwo can be characterised as selective types of secondary education. The havo diploma is the minimum requirement for admission to hbo (universities of professional education). The vwo curriculum prepares pupils for university, and only the vwo diploma grants access to wo (research universities).


The first three years of both havo and vwo are called the basisvorming (literally, "basic forming"). All pupils follow the same subjects: languages, mathematics, history, arts and sciences. The last two years of havo and the last three years of vwo are referred to as the second phase (tweede fase), or upper secondary education. This part of the educational programme allows for differentiation by means of subject clusters that are denoted "profiles" (profielen). A profile is a set of different subjects that will make up for the largest part of the pupil’s timetable. It emphasizes a specific area of study in which the pupil specializes. Compared to the havo route, the difficulty level of the profiles at the vwo is higher, and lasts three years instead of two. Pupils pick one of four profiles towards the end of their third year:

  • Cultuur en Maatschappij (C&M; literally, "culture and society") emphasizes arts and foreign languages (French, German and less frequently Spanish, Russian, Arabic and Turkish). In the province of Friesland, West Frisian is also taught. The mathematics classes focus on statistics and stochastics. This profile prepares for artistic and cultural training.
  • Economie en Maatschappij (E&M; literally, "economy and society") emphasizes social sciences, economics, and history. The mathematics classes focus on statistics and stochastics. This profile prepares for management and business administration.
  • Natuur en Gezondheid (N&G; literally, "nature and health") emphasizes biology and natural sciences. The mathematics classes focus on algebra, geometry and calculus. This profile is necessary to attend medical training.
  • Natuur en Techniek (N&T; literally, "nature and technology") emphasizes natural sciences. The mathematics classes focus on algebra, geometry and calculus. This profile is necessary to attend technological and natural science training.

Because each profile is designed to prepare pupils for certain areas of study at the tertiary level, some hbo and wo studies require a specific profile because of specific basic knowledge is required. One for example cannot study engineering without having attained a certificate in physics at the secondary educational level. Aside from the subjects in the profile, the curriculum is composed of a compulsory segment that includes Dutch, English and some minor subjects, and a free choice segment in which pupils can choose two or more subjects from other profiles. Picking particular subjects in the free curriculum space can result in multiple profiles, especially the profiles N&G and N&T that overlap for a large part.


The havo (hoger algemeen voortgezet onderwijs; literally, "higher general continued education") has five grades and is attended from age twelve to seventeen. A havo diploma provides access to the hbo level (polytechnic) of tertiary education.


The vwo (voorbereidend wetenschappelijk onderwijs; literally, "preparatory scientific education") has six grades and is attended from age twelve to eighteen. A vwo diploma provides access to wo training, although universities may set their own admission criteria (e.g. based on profile or on certain subjects).

The vwo is divided into atheneum and gymnasium. A gymnasium programme is similar to the atheneum, except that Latin and Greek are compulsory courses. Not all schools teach the ancient languages throughout the entire basisvorming. Latin may start in either the first or the second year, while Greek may start in the second or third. At the end of the third year, a pupil may decide to take one or both languages in the tweede fase, where the education in ancient languages is combined with education in ancient culture. The subject that they choose, although technically compulsory, is subtracted from their free space requirement.

Vwo-plus, also known as atheneum-plus, vwo+ or lyceum, offers extra subjects like philosophy, additional foreign languages and courses to introduce students to scientific research.

Some schools offer bilingual vwo (tweetalig vwo, or tvwo), where 50% of the lessons are taught in English and 50% in Dutch. In some schools near the Netherlands–Germany border, pupils may choose a form of tvwo that offers 50% of the lessons in German and 50% in Dutch.


Vavo (Voortgezet algemeen volwassenen onderwijs; literally, "prolonged general adult education") is mbo, havo or vwo taught for adults.

Tertiary Education


The mbo (middelbaar beroepsonderwijs; literally, "middle-level applied education") is oriented towards vocational training. Many pupils with a vmbo-diploma attend mbo. The mbo lasts one to four years. After mbo (4 years), pupils can enroll in hbo or enter the job market. A multitude of mbo studies is typically offered at a regionaal opleidingencentrum (ROC; literally, "regional education center"). Most ROCs are concentrated on one or several locations in larger cities. Exceptions include schools offering specialized mbo studies such as agriculture, and schools adapted to pupils with a learning disability that require training in small groups or at an individual level.

Higher Education

Higher education in the Netherlands is offered at two types of institutions: universities of professional education (hogescholen; hbo) and research universities (universiteiten; wo). The former comprises general institutions and institutions specialising in a particular field, such as agriculture, fine and performing arts, or teacher training; the latter comprises general universities and universities specialising in engineering and agriculture.

Since September 2002, the higher education system in the Netherlands has been organised around a three-cycle system consisting of bachelor’s, master’s and PhD degrees, to conform and standardize the teaching in both the hbo and the wo according to the Bologna process. At the same time, the ECTS credit system was adopted as an way of quantifying a student’s workload (both contact hours, and hours spent studying and preparing assignments). Under Dutch law, one credit represents 28 hours of work and 60 credits represents one year of full-time study. Both systems have been adopted to improve international recognition and compliance.

Despite these changes, the binary system with a distinction between research-oriented education and professional higher education remains in use. These two types of degree programmes differ in terms of the number of credits required to complete the programme and the degree that is awarded. A wo bachelor’s programme requires the completion of 180 credits (3 years) and graduates obtain the degree of Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Laws degree (B.A./B.Sc./LL.B.), depending on the discipline. An hbo bachelor’s programme requires the completion of 240 credits (4 years), and graduates obtain a degree indicating their field of study, for example Bachelor of Engineering (B. Eng.) or Bachelor of Nursing (B. Nursing). The old title appropriate to the discipline in question (bc., ing.) may still be used.

Master’s programmes at the wo level mostly require the completion of 60 or 120 credits (1 or 2 years). Some programmes require 90 (1.5 years) or more than 120 credits. In engineering, agriculture, mathematics, and the natural sciences, 120 credits are always required, while in medicine the master’s phase requires 180 credits (3 years). Other studies that usually have 60-credit "theoretical master’s programmes" sometimes offer 120-credit technical or research masters. Graduates obtain the degree of Master of Arts, Master of Science, Master of Laws or the not legally recognized degree Master of Philosophy (M.A./M.Sc./LL.M./M.Phil.), depending on the discipline. The old title appropriate to the discipline in question (drs., mr., ir.) may still be used. Master’s programmes at the hbo level require the completion of 60 to 120 credits, and graduates obtain a degree indicating the field of study, for example Master of Social Work (MSW).

The third cycle of higher education is offered only by research universities, which are entitled to award the country’s highest academic degree, the doctorate, which entitles a person to use the title doctor (dr.). The process by which a doctorate is obtained is referred to as "promotion" (promotie). The doctorate is primarily a research degree, for which a dissertation based on original research must be written and publicly defended. This research is typically conducted while working at a university as a promovendus (research assistant).

Requirements for admission to higher education

To enroll in a wo bachelor’s programme, a student is required to hold a vwo diploma or to have completed the first year (60 credits) of an hbo programme resulting in a propaedeuse. The minimum admission requirement for hbo is either a havo school diploma or a level-4 (highest) mbo diploma. In some cases, pupils are required to have completed a specific subject cluster. A quota (numerus fixus) applies to admission to certain programmes, primarily in the medical sciences, and places are allocated using a weighted lottery. Applicants older than 21 years who do not possess one of these qualifications can qualify for admission to higher education on the basis of an entrance examination and assessment.

For admission to all master’s programmes, a bachelor’s degree in one or more specified disciplines is required, in some cases in combination with other requirements. Graduates with an hbo bachelor’s may have to complete additional requirements for admission to a wo master’s programme. A pre-master programme may provide admission to a master’s programme in a different discipline than that of the bachelor’s degree.

 Accreditation and quality assurance

A guaranteed standard of higher education is maintained through a national system of legal regulation and quality assurance.

The Ministry of Education, Culture and Science is responsible for legislation pertaining to education. A system of accreditation was introduced in 2002. Since then, the new Accreditation Organization of the Netherlands and Flanders (NVAO) has been responsible for accreditation. According to the section of the Dutch Higher Education Act that deals with the accreditation of higher education (2002), degree programmes offered by research universities and universities of professional education will be evaluated according to established criteria, and programmes that meet those criteria will be accredited, that is, recognised for a period of six years. Only accredited programmes are eligible for government funding, and students receive financial aid only when enrolled in an accredited programme. Only accredited programmes issue legally recognised degrees. Accredited programmes are listed in the publicly accessible Central Register of Higher Education Study Programmes (CROHO). Institutions are autonomous in their decision to offer non-accredited programmes, subject to internal quality assessment. These programmes do not receive government funding.


The hbo (Hoger beroepsonderwijs; literally, "higher professional education") is oriented towards higher learning and professional training. After hbo (4–6 years), pupils can enroll in a (professional) master’s programme (1–2 years) or enter the job market. The hbo is taught in vocational universities (hogescholen), of which there are over 60 in the Netherlands, each of which offers a broad variety of programmes, with the exception of some that specialize in arts or agriculture. Note that the hogescholen are not allowed to name themself university in Dutch, but in English this is not prohibited.


The wo (wetenschappelijk onderwijs; literally, "scientific education") is only taught at research universities. It is oriented towards higher learning in the arts or sciences. After the bachelor’s programme (typically 3 years), pupils can enroll in a master’s programme (typically 1–2 years) or enter the job market. There are three technical universities, an Open University, six general universities and four universities with unique specializations in the Netherlands, although the specialized universities have increasingly added more general studies to their curriculum.

Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences

Although not a university, the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences has many links with Dutch universities. Its mission is to be the forum, conscience and representative of Dutch science.

History of education

The introduction of the so-called Kinderwetje (literally, "children’s little law") by legislator Samuel van Houten in 1874 forbade child labour under the age of 12. An amendment in 1900 led to compulsory education for children aged 6–12 in 1901. Until 1968 the Dutch educational system was organized as follows:

  • Kleuterschool - kindergarten (ages 4–6).
  • Lagere school - primary education, (ages 6–12), followed by either;
    • Individueel technisch onderwijs (ito; literally, "invidual technical education") - now vmbo - praktijkonderwijs (ages 12 to 16).
    • Ambachtsschool (vocational training) - comparable with vmbo - gemengde leerweg, but there was more emphasis on thorough technical knowledge (ages 12–16).
    • (Meer) uitgebreid lager onderwijs (mulo, later ulo; literally, "(further) extended primary education") - comparable with vmbo - theoretical learning path (ages 12 to 16).
    • Hogere burgerschool (hbs; literally, "higher commoner’s school", mixed education) - comparable with atheneum (ages 12–17).
    • Middelbare meisjesschool (mms; literally, "middle-level girl’s school") - comparable with havo (ages 12–17).
    • Gymnasium - secondary education, comparable with atheneum with compulsory Greek and Latin added (ages 12 to 18). At the age of 15 one could choose between the alpha profile (’gymnasium-α; mostly languages, including compulsory Greek and Latin) or the beta profile (’gymnasium-β; mostly natural sciences and mathematics). A student wanting to complete gymnasium-β would have to pass exams in the languages Ancient Greek, Latin, French, German, English, Dutch (all consisting of three separate parts: an oral book report, a written essay, and a written summary), pass the sciences physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics (in mathematics, students were assigned to two of the three sub-fields analytic geometry/algebra, trigonometry, and solid geometry based on a draw), and attend history and geography, which were taught until the final year without examinations.
    • Lyceum - a combination of gymnasium and hbs, with alpha and beta streams which pupils elected after a two-year (sometimes one-year) bridging period (ages 12–18).
  • Middelbare and hogere technische school (mts/hts; literally, middle and higher level applied/technical training), similar to polytechnic education.
  • University - only after completing hbs, mms, gymnasium or hts.

The Wet op het voortgezet onderwijs (literally, "law on secondary education") was passed in 1963 at the initiative of legislator Jo Cals and created a system on which the current one is based. It is more widely known as the Mammoetwet (literally, "mammoth act"), a name it got when ARP-MP Anton Bernard Roosjen was reported to have said „Let that mammoth remain in fairyland”. The law was enforced in 1968. It introduced four streams (lts/vbo, mavo, havo and vwo) and expanded compulsory education to 9 years. In 1975 this was changed to 10 years.

The Mammoetwet was reformed significantly in the late 1990s aimed at introducing information management skills, increase the pupils’ autonomy and personal responsibility, and promote integration between different subjects. Lts/vbo and mavo were fused into vmbo, while the structure of havo and vwo were changed by the introduction of a three-year basisvorming (primary secondary education; literally, "basic forming"), followed by the tweede fase (upper secondary education; literally, second phase"). The basisvorming standardized subjects for the first three years of secondary education and introduced two new compulsory subjects (technical skills and care skills), while the tweede fase allowed for differentiation through profiles.

Terms and school holidays

In general, all schools in the Netherlands observe a long summer holiday, and several weeks of one or two-week holidays during the year. Also schools are closed during public holidays. Academic terms only exist at the tertiary education level. Institutions are free to divide their year, but it is most commonly organized into four quadmesters.

The summer holiday lasts six weeks in elementary school, and starts and ends in different weeks for the northern, middle and southern provinces to avoid all families to go on vacation simultaneously. The seven-week summer holidays of all high schools occur at the same time, usually starting in July. Universities have longer holidays and usually start the year in late August or early September. The summer holiday is followed by a one-week autumn holiday in the second half of October at all levels except for most research universities. At elementary and high school levels, the week depends on the north/middle/south division also used around the summer holidays. There is a two-week Christmas holiday that includes New Year’s in the second half of December, and a one-week spring holiday in the second half of February. The last school holiday of the year is a one-week May holiday around 30 April (Queen’s Day). Easter does not have a week of holiday, schools are only closed on Good Friday and Easter Monday. The summer holiday dates are compulsory, the other dates are government recommendations and can be changed by each school, as long as the right number of weeks is observed.
See also

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